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Authors: Linda Lael Miller

McKettricks of Texas: Tate

BOOK: McKettricks of Texas: Tate
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Dear Reader,

 

Welcome to the first of three books starring a brand-new group of modern-day McKettrick men. Readers who have embraced the irrepressible, larger-than-life McKettrick clan as their own won’t want to miss the stories of Tate, Garrett and Austin—three Texas-bred brothers who meet their matches in the Remington sisters. When eldest brother Tate McKettrick sets his sights on his old high school sweetheart Libby Remington, the town of Blue River, Texas, will never be the same!

 

I also wanted to write today to tell you about a special group of people with whom I’ve become involved in the past couple years—the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), specifically their Pets for Life program.

 

The Pets for Life program is one of the best ways to help your local shelter—it helps keep animals out of shelters in the first place. Something as basic as keeping a collar and tag on your pet all the time makes a big difference. If he gets out and gets lost, he can be returned home. Be a responsible pet owner, spay or neuter your pet and don’t give up when things don’t go perfectly. If your dog digs in the yard or your cat scratches the furniture, know that these are problems that can be addressed. You can find all the information about these—and many other common problems—at www.petsforlife.org. This campaign is focused on keeping pets and their people together for a lifetime.

 

As many of you know, my own household includes two dogs, two cats and six horses, so this is a cause that is near and dear to my heart. I hope you’ll get involved along with me.

 

With love,

Praise for the novels of
LINDA LAEL MILLER

“As hot as the noontime desert.”


Publishers Weekly
on
The Rustler

“This story creates lasting memories of soul-searing redemption and the belief in goodness and hope.”


RT Book Reviews
on
The Rustler

“Loaded with hot lead, steamy sex and surprising plot twists.”


Publishers Weekly
on
A Wanted Man

“Miller’s prose is smart, and her tough Eastwoodian cowboy cuts a sharp, unexpectedly funny figure in a classroom full of rambunctious frontier kids.”


Publishers Weekly
on
The Man from Stone Creek

“[Miller] paints a brilliant portrait of the good, the bad and the ugly, the lost and the lonely, and the power of love to bring light into the darkest of souls. This is western romance at its finest.”


RT Book Reviews
on
The Man from Stone Creek

“Sweet, homespun and touched with angelic Christmas magic, this holiday romance reprises characters from Miller’s popular McKettrick series and is a perfect stocking stuffer for her fans.”


Library Journal
on
A McKettrick Christmas

“An engrossing, contemporary western romance.”


Publishers Weekly
on
McKettrick’s Pride

“Linda Lael Miller creates vibrant characters and stories I defy you to forget.”


New York Times
bestselling author Debbie Macomber

LINDA LAEL MILLER
McKETTRICKS OF TEXAS: TATE

Also available from
LINDA LAEL MILLER
and HQN Books

The Stone Creek series

The Man from Stone Creek

A Wanted Man

The Rustler

The Bridegroom

The Mojo Sheepshanks series

Deadly Gamble

Deadly Deceptions

The Montana Creeds

Montana Creeds: Logan

Montana Creeds: Dylan

Montana Creeds: Tyler

A Creed Country Christmas

The McKettricks series

McKettrick’s Choice

McKettrick’s Luck

McKettrick’s Pride

McKettrick’s Heart

A McKettrick Christmas

Don’t miss the further adventures of the McKettricks of Texas

McKettricks of Texas: Garrett

June 2010

McKettricks of Texas: Austin

July 2010

For Leslee Borger, my fellow cowgirl,
with love and appreciation.

McKETTRICKS OF TEXAS: TATE
PROLOGUE

Silver Spur Ranch
Blue River, Texas

S
PRING THUNDER EXPLODED
overhead, fit to cleave the roof right down the middle and blow out every window on all three floors.

Tate McKettrick swore under his breath, while rain pelted the venerable walls like machine-gun fire.

Like as not, the creek would be over the road by now, and he’d have to travel overland to get to town. He was running late—again. And Cheryl, his ex-wife, would blister his ears with the usual accusations, for sure.

He didn’t give a damn, she’d say, about their delicate twin daughters, because he’d wanted boys, as rough-and-tumble as he and his brothers had been. That was her favorite dig. She’d never know—because he wasn’t about to let on—how that particular remark never failed to sear a few layers off his heart. He would literally have died for Audrey and Ava—the twins were the only redeeming features of a marriage that should never have taken place in the first place.

Since one good jab was never enough for Cheryl, she’d most likely go on to say that being late for their daughters’ dance recital was his way of spiting
her,
their mother. He’d
used
his own children, she’d insist—he
knew
she hated it when he was late—yada, yada, yada.

Blah, blah, blah.

Tate didn’t have to “use” the twins to get under Cheryl’s hide—he’d done that in spades after the divorce by forcing her to live in Blue River, so they could share custody. Audrey and Ava alternated between their mother’s place in town and the ranch, a week there, a week here, with the occasional scheduling variation. As soon as he picked them up on the prescribed days, Cheryl was off to some hot spot to hobnob with her fancy friends and all but melt her credit cards.

Tight-jawed with resignation, Tate plunked down on the edge of his bed and reached for the boots he’d polished before shedding his rain-soaked range clothes to take a hasty shower. Clad in stiff new jeans and the requisite long-sleeved white Western shirt, the cowboy version of a tux, he listened with half an ear to the rodeo announcer’s voice, a laconic drone spilling from the speakers of the big flat-screen TV mounted on the wall above the fireplace.

He was reaching for the remote to shut it off when he caught his brother’s name.

The hairs on Tate’s nape bristled, and something coiled in the pit of his stomach, snakelike, fixing to spring.

“…Austin McKettrick up next, riding a bull named Buzzsaw…”

Tate’s gaze—indeed, the whole of his consciousness—swung to the TV screen. Sure enough, there was his kid brother, in high-definition, living color, standing on the catwalk behind the chute, pacing a little, then shifting from one foot to the other, eager for his turn to ride.

The shot couldn’t have lasted more than a second or two—another cowboy had just finished a ride and his score
was about to be posted on the mega-screen high overhead—but it was long enough to send a chill down Tate’s spine.

The other cowboy’s score was good, the crowd cheered, and the camera swung back to Austin. He’d always loved cameras, the damn fool, and they’d always loved him right back.

The same went for women, kids, dogs and horses.

He crouched on the catwalk, Austin did, while down in the chute, the bull was ominously still, staring out between the rails, biding his time. The calm ones were always the worst, Tate reflected—Buzzsaw was a volcano, waiting to blow, saving all his whup-ass for the arena, where he’d have room to do what he’d been bred to do: wreak havoc.

Break bones, crush vital organs.

A former rodeo competitor himself, though his event had been bareback bronc riding, Tate knew this bull wasn’t just mean; it was two-thousand pounds of cowboy misery, ready to bust loose.

Austin had to have picked up on all that and more. He’d begun his career as a mutton-buster when he was three, riding sheep for gold-stamped ribbons at the county fair, progressed to Little Britches Rodeo and stayed with it from then on. He’d taken several championships at the National High School Rodeo Finals and been a star during his college years, too.

It wasn’t as if he didn’t know bulls.

Austin looked more cocky than tense; in any dangerous situation, his mantra was “Bring it on.”

Tate watched as his brother adjusted his hat again, lowered himself onto the bull’s back, looped his hand under the leather rigging and secured it in a “suicide wrap,” essentially tying himself to the animal. A moment later, he nodded to the gate men.

Tate stared, unable to look away. He felt an uncanny sensation like the one he’d experienced the night their mom and dad had been killed; he’d awakened, still thrashing to tear free of the last clammy tendrils of a nightmare, his flesh drenched in an icy sweat, the echo of the crash as real as if he’d witnessed the distant accident in person.

He’d known Jim and Sally McKettrick were both gone long before the call came—and he felt the same soul-numbing combination of shock and dread now.

A single, raspy word scraped past his throat.
“No.”

Of course, Austin couldn’t hear him, wouldn’t have paid any heed if he had.

The bull went eerily still, primal forces gathering within it like a storm, but as the chute gate swung open, the animal erupted from confinement like a rocket from a launchpad, headed skyward.

Buzzsaw dove and then spun, elemental violence unleashed.

Austin stayed with him, spurring with the heels of his boots, right hand high in the air, looking as cool as if he were idling in the old tire-swing that dangled over the deepest part of the swimming hole. Four long seconds passed before he even lost his hat.

Tate wanted to close his eyes, but the message still wasn’t making it from his brain to the tiny muscles created for that purpose. He’d had differences with his youngest brother—and some of them were serious—but none of that mattered now.

The clock on the screen seemed to move in slow motion; eight seconds, as all cowboys know, can be an eternity. For Tate, the scene unfolded frame by frame, in a hollow, echoing void, as though taking place one dimension removed.

Finally, the bull made his move and arched above the ground like a trout springing from a lake and then rolling as
if determined to turn his belly to the ceiling of that arena, and sent Austin hurtling to one side, but not clear.

The pickup men moved in, ready to cut Austin free, but that bull was a hurricane with hooves, spinning and kicking in all directions.

The bullfighters—referred to as clowns in the old days—were normally called on to distract a bull or a horse, lead it away from the cowboy so he’d have time to get to the fence and scramble over it, to safety.

Under these circumstances, there wasn’t much anybody could do.

Austin bounced off one side of that bull and then the other, still bound to it, his body limp. Possibly lifeless.

Fear slashed at Tate’s insides.

Finally, one of the pickup men got close enough to cut Austin free of the rigging, curve an arm around him before he fell, and wrench him off the bull. Austin didn’t move as the pickup man rode away from Buzzsaw, while the bullfighters and several riders drove the animal out of the arena.

Tate’s cell phone, tucked into the pocket of the sodden denim jacket he’d worn to work cattle on the range that day, jangled. He ignored its shrill insistence.

Paramedics were waiting to lower Austin onto a stretcher. The announcer murmured something, but Tate didn’t hear what it was because of the blood pounding in his ears.

The TV cameras covered the place in dizzying sweeps. In the stands, the fans were on their feet, pale and worried, and most of the men took their hats off, held them to their chests, the way they did for the Stars and Stripes.

Or when a hearse rolled by.

Behind the chutes, other cowboys watched intently, a few lowering their heads, their lips moving in private prayer.

Tate stood stock-still in the middle of his bedroom floor, bile scalding the back of his throat. His heart had surged up into his windpipe and swollen there, beating hard, fit to choke him.

Both phones were ringing now—the cell and the extension on the table beside his bed.

He endured the tangle of sound, the way it scraped at his nerves, but made no move to answer.

Onscreen, the rodeo faded away, almost instantly replaced by a commercial for aftershave.

That broke Tate’s paralysis; he turned, picked up his discarded jacket off the floor, ferreted through its several pockets for his briefly silent cell phone. It rang in his hand, and he flipped it open.

“Tate McKettrick,” he said automatically.

“Holy Christ,” his brother Garrett shot back, “I thought you’d never answer! Listen, Austin just tangled with a bull, and it looks to me like he’s hurt bad—”

“I know,” Tate ground out, trying in vain to recall what city Austin had been competing in that week. “I was watching.”

“Meet me at the airstrip,” Garrett ordered. “I have to make some calls. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

“Garrett, the weather—”

“Screw the weather,” Garrett snapped. Nothing scared him—except commitment to one woman. “If you’re too chicken-shit to go up in a piss-ant rainstorm like this one, just say so right now and save me a trip to the Spur, okay?
I’m
going to find out where they’re taking our kid brother and get there any way I have to, because, goddamn it, this might be goodbye. Do you
get
that, cowboy?”

“I get it,” Tate said, after unlocking his jawbones. “I’ll be waiting when you hit the tarmac, Top Gun.”

Garrett, calling on a landline, had the advantage of hang
ing up with a crash. Tate retrieved his wallet from the dresser top and his battered leather bomber jacket from the walk-in closet, shrugging into it as he headed for the double doors separating the suite from the broad corridor beyond.

With generations of McKettricks adding wings to the house as the family fortune doubled and redoubled, the place was ridiculously large, over eighteen thousand square feet.

Tate descended one of the three main staircases trisecting the house, the heels of his dress boots making no sound on the hand-loomed runner, probably fashioned for some sultan before the first McKettrick ever set foot in the New World.

Hitting the marble-floored entryway, he cast a glance at the antique grandfather’s clock—he hadn’t worn a watch since his job with McKettrickCo had evaporated in the wake of the IPO of the century—and shook his head when he saw the time.

Four-thirty.

Audrey and Ava’s dance recital had started half an hour ago.

Striding along a glassed-in gallery edging the Olympic-size pool, with its retractable roof and floating bar, he opened his cell phone again and speed-dialed Cheryl.

She didn’t say “Hello.” She said, “
Where the hell are you,
Tate? Audrey and Ava’s big number is
next,
and they keep peeking around the curtain, hoping to see you in the audience and—”

“Austin’s been hurt,” Tate broke in, aching as he imagined his daughters in their sequins and tutus, watching for his arrival. “I can’t make it tonight.”

“But it’s your week and I have plans…”

“Cheryl,” Tate bit out, “did you hear what I said? Austin’s hurt.”

He could just see her, curling her lip, arching one perfectly plucked raven eyebrow.

“So help me God, Tate, if this is an excuse—”

“It’s no excuse. Tell the kids there’s been an emergency, and I’ll call them as soon as I can.
Don’t
mention Austin, though. I don’t want them worrying.”

“Austin is hurt?” For a lawyer, Cheryl could be pretty slow on the uptake at times. “What happened?”

Tate reached the kitchen, with its miles of glistening granite counters and multiple glass-fronted refrigerators. Cheryl’s question speared him in a vital place, and not just because he wasn’t sure he’d ever see Austin alive again.

Suppose it was too late to straighten things out?

What if, when he and Garrett flew back from wherever their crazy brother was, Austin was riding in the cargo hold, in a box?

Tate’s eyes burned like acid as he jerked open the door leading to the ten-car garage.

“He drew a bad bull,” he finally said, forcing the words out, as spiky-sharp as a rusty coil of barbed wire.

Cheryl drew in a breath. “Oh, my God,” she whispered. “He isn’t going to—to die?”

“I don’t know,” Tate said.

Austin’s beat-up red truck, one of several vehicles with his name on the title, was parked in its usual place, next to the black Porsche Garrett drove when he was home. The sight gave Tate a pang as he jerked open the door of his mud-splattered extended-cab Silverado and climbed behind the wheel, then pushed the button to roll up the garage door behind him.

“Call when you know anything,” Cheryl urged. “Anything at all.”

Tate ground the keys in the ignition, and backed out into the rain with such speed that he nearly collided with one of the ranch work-trucks parked broadside behind him.

The elderly cowpuncher at the wheel got out of the way, pronto.

Tate didn’t stop to explain.

“I’ll call,” he told Cheryl, cranking the steering wheel. He begrudged her that promise, but he couldn’t reach his daughters except through his ex-wife.

Cheryl was crying. “Okay,” she said. “Don’t forget.”

Tate shut the phone without saying goodbye.

At the airstrip, he waited forty-five agonizing minutes in his truck, watching torrents of rain wash down the windshield, remembering his kid brother at every stage of his life—the new baby he and Garrett had soon wanted to put up for adoption, the mutton-buster, the high school and college heartthrob.

The man Cheryl swore had seduced her one night in Vegas, when she was legally still Tate’s wife.

When the jet, a former member of the McKettrickCo fleet, landed, he waited for it to come to a stop before shoving open the truck’s door and making a run for the airplane.

Garrett stood in the open doorway, having lowered the steps with a hydraulic whir.

“He’s in Houston,” he said. “They’re going to operate as soon as he’s stable.”

BOOK: McKettricks of Texas: Tate
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